Only a few years ago, Tara Chapman was wrapping up a decade of sometimes-dangerous intelligence and policy work in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Now 34, she’s left behind the Kevlar vest for a beekeeping suit, tending to a few dozen hives around Austin.
“I’ve traded in one suit of protective gear for another,” said the honey meister, who supplies gorgeous, delectable bits of raw honeycomb to such local restaurants as Trace.
She has also become something of an activist: Chapman is a member of a group of farmers, environmentalists and researchers pressing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids that they say threatens the pollinator population.
Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department recently announced it would cease using on its golf courses neonicotinoids — which can disrupt the central nervous system of insects, leaving them paralyzed, and are blamed by some scientists for an ongoing collapse of the bee population.
Roughly a third of our food chain is the result of pollination that happened in a farmer’s field, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
A 2015 report found that, between 2008 and 2013, bee abundance declined across nearly a quarter of the nation. The report’s authors attributed the decline to conversion of natural habitats to row crops as well as to pesticide use, climate change and disease.
Austin has about 180 species of bees, according to Shalene Jha, a University of Texas biologist who studies bees; they can be distinguished, in part, by the location of their hair, which catches pollen. Some have hair on their eyes, some on their knees and others on their bellies.
Industry scientists say the pesticides can increase overall crop yields.
But that’s short-term thinking, Jha said at a press event organized Thursday by Environment Texas.
“We’re altering our agricultural system, reducing diversity and pulverizing the soil,” she said.
Chapman had grown up in a small town near Lubbock, the daughter of blue-collar parents — her stepfather is a mechanic for Greyhound; her mother does odd jobs, most recently working at a funeral home — before heading to Duke University.
She was the first in her family to graduate from college and at the school career fair sneaked her résumé into a stack at the CIA table; she worked as a CIA operative for five years, stationed chiefly in Pakistan — “We were working in areas that weren’t very safe, doing things those countries wouldn’t want us to do,” she said — before working for a congressional commission investigating wartime contracts and then for the Special Inspector General on Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Longing for Texas, if not Lubbock, she began splitting time between Kabul and Austin. On a whim, she took a beekeeping class about four years ago; hooked, she and a friend started out with a pair of hives — she would call her business, which includes beekeeping education, Two Hives Honey — but decided she needed more experience before striking out on her own.
She wrote to a Navasota beekeeping business to see about a job. Beekeeping is hard work, including the lifting of 50 to 90 pound cases of honeycomb — and determined to impress she included in an introductory email how much weight she could deadlift.
She was hired, working six-day weeks with 12-hour days in the hot Texas sun in a sweltering beekeeping suit.
Like other beekeepers, she has neat factoids about bees at the ready: The average worker bee lives 42 days and produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime; bees travel up to five miles to forage.
She said the only thing that ties her two careers together might be how uncommon it is for a woman to hold the jobs she’s had.
“To see a youngish female professional beekeeper is really rare,” she said.
The other common thread is how unusual the jobs themselves are. “My mom is wondering when I’m going to take a normal job,” she said.